We’ve all heard about Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But I bet you haven’t heard of Ernestine Rose. Rose was an early pioneer of atheist feminism and argued that the primary source of female oppression was religious doctrine, and an advocate for gender equality and women’s suffrage. She spent her lifetime as an avid lecturer, writer, inventor and abolitionist.
Raised in the home of a wealthy rabbi in Poland in the early 19th century, Rose rejected the idea of female inferiority and the infallibility of religious texts at an early age. At 16, shortly after the death of her mother, she was betrothed against her will to a friend of her father’s. Unable to convince her fiance or father to break off the engagement, Rose traveled to a secular court that ruled in her favor. However, upon returning home she discovered that her father had remarried to a girl her own age.
Unable to deal with the tension in her household, she left a year later and traveled to Berlin. There she found herself trapped by a law which required Jews to have a sponsor in order to do business. Unwilling to tolerate this, she requested an audience with the Prussian king and convinced him to make an exception to allow her to do business independently. Afterward, she invented a room deodorizer which she used to fund her travels. She journeyed throughout Europe before finally arriving in England. She was invited to a meeting of radicals where, despite her limited English, she captivated audiences with her lectures on human rights.
She would later travel to the United States, where she became acquainted with other prominent suffragettes and abolitionists including Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. She attended countless women’s rights conventions and conferences. She was even elected president of the National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1854, despite objections to her atheism. During the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York in 1856 she responded to a heckler who tried to use religious objections to women’s equality, saying:
Do you tell me that the Bible is against our rights? Then I say that our claims do not rest upon a book written no one knows when, or by whom. Do you tell me what Paul or Peter says on the subject? Then again I reply that our claims do not rest on the opinions of any one, not even on those of Paul and Peter . . . Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are nothing but dead letters.
Rose died in England in 1892, leaving behind a substantial legacy for women’s property rights, racial equality, and religious tolerance.